Social, Ethical, and Policy Implications of Engineering: Selected Readings / Edition 1

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"In SOCIAL, ETHICAL, AND POLICY IMPLICATIONS OF ENGINEERING, engineers, faculty, and students will find an informative guide to the professional, societal, and ethical responsibilities that face practicing engineers today. Through an integrated approach to the theory of engineering ethics and practical real-world issues, this comprehensive book offers readers an in-depth analysis of technology's current social role.

Drawing on readings and case studies first published in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, this easy-to-read text will develop readers' understanding of the important issues surrounding "macroethical" public policy debates, including discussions of sustainable development, public health, risk and product liability, and telecommunications. These cases and readings also provide an opportunity to apply the theory in real-world situations.

SOCIAL, ETHICAL, AND POLICY IMPLICATIONS OF ENGINEERING will help students meet the new accreditation criteria for engineering adopted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). In addition, contemporary issues presented in this far-reaching book will allow students and practicing engineers to gain greater insight into how social and ethical concerns shape contributions to the engineering field.

For more information and related articles go

Professors: To request an examination copy simply e-mail"

Sponsored by:
IEEE Social Implications of Technology Society

" informative guide to the professional, societal, and ethical responsibilities facing practicing engineers today ...a comprehensive book offering an in-depth analysis of technology's current social role."

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Editorial Reviews

Reviews the professional and ethical responsibility of engineers, the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context, and contemporary issues. The reader reprints 35 articles previously published in , and organizes them into ten chapters. Introductions for each chapter were written by Herkert North Carolina State University. Topics include the humanist engineer of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, health risk valuations based on public consent, the role of technology in sustainable development, and developing telecommunications in Ghana. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780780347120
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 9/24/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 354
  • Product dimensions: 8.43 (w) x 10.98 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph R. Herkert is assistant professor of Multidisciplinary Studies at North Carolina State University where he teaches in the Science, Technology and Society Program and is director of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars Program—a dual degree program in engineering and humanities/social sciences. He also holds an associate appointment in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Dr. Herkert has published papers in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE Transactions on Education, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Science and Engineering Ethics, and the Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice. He has served as guest editor of special issues for Social Science Computer Review and The Journal of Electronic Publishing. Dr. Herkert is a past president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications on Technology (SSIT) and currently serves as publications chair of SSIT and editorial board chair of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

Social, Ethical, and Policy Implications of Engineering

Selected Readings

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7803-4712-9

Chapter One

Technology, Values, and Society

TECHNOLOGY is pervasive in modern society. For example, virtually every section of a single issue of the New York Times (January 13,1992) that I am fond of showing my students contains articles relating to some aspect of science or technology. This includes the front page, local section, national section, international section, business section, sports section, arts section, and even the celebrity column.

Despite technology's omnipresence in modern life, however, the average person tends to be characterized by what political philosopher Langdon Winner calls "technological somnambulism"-that is, when it comes to technology, we sleepwalk through life taking its benefits for granted and pausing to consider its deeper character only when things go wrong. Although many nonengineers approach technology with a combination of awe and fear, engineers often tend to focus only on its technical character to the neglect of its societal context.

Defining Technology

In everyday usage technology often refers merely to machines and their use by human beings. However, the term can be defined in many richer ways. Following are some examples:

The organization of knowledge for practical purposes-Emmanuel G. Mesthene

... the intelligent organization and manipulation of materials for useful purposes-Stephen Unger

Systems of rationalized control over large groups of men, events, and machines by small groups of technically skilled men operating through organizational hierarchy-John McDermott

... the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it-Max Frisch

While many, if not most, definitions of technology seem to reflect the biases of the author, we often find common elements in such definitions. Technology is variously described as hardware, organized knowledge, applied science, or know-how. The purpose ascribed to technology often entails one or more of the following: practical purposes, production of goods and services, extension of human capabilities, or control of the environment. Some recent definitions of technology, however, attempt to incorporate living in harmony with the environment.

Many contemporary authors highlight the systems orientation of technology, for example, S. J. Kline, who focuses on the concept of sociotechnical systems of manufacture and use. These concepts are useful not only because they recognize the importance of technological systems, but also because they explicitly acknowledge the social context in which technology is developed and utilized.

Rather than defining technology, engineer Norman Balabanian (who served as the first editor of Technology and Society Magazine, with a second stint after an interlude of a few years) describes the dimensions or elements of technology:

1. Physical objects-hardware-tools, instruments, machines, weapons, appliances. This is the original, elementary conception of technology.

2. Knowledge-not abstract, scientific knowledge but know-how-methods, processes, technique. For [some people], this dimension is technology.

3. Human beings-not autonomous individuals but people who are largely interchangeable with one another-have the appropriate know-how to operate the hardware.

4. Organization and system-the organized structures, the integrated networks within which the hardware is embedded and technique employed; the linkages that tie together the hardware and the technique with the social institutions.

5. Political and economic power-this dimension is implicit in the preceding one but it should be acknowledged explicitly.

Views of Technology

Building on such definitions as those cited above, various views of technology and its relationship with society emerge. A naively optimistic view described by Mesthene sees "technology as an unalloyed blessing for man and society. Technology is ... the motor of all progress," (p. 74).

According to Mesthene, an equally naive negative view is that "technology is an unmitigated curse.... It is seen as autonomous and uncontrollable" (p. 74). An extension of this view is the notion of technological determinism-that is, that technology marches to the beat of its own drum and people have no choice but to dance to the beat. (For more on technological determinism, see the interview with Langdon Winner in the background reading included at the end of this chapter.)

Mesthene himself sees technology more as a neutral tool: "What its effects will be and what ends it will serve are not inherent in the technology, but depend upon what man will do with technology" (p. 82). Moreover, he argues, one cannot separate technology's beneficial outcomes from its negative side effects: "(Technology) has both positive and negative effects, and it usually has the two at the same time and in virtue of each other" (p. 77; emphasis in the original). This attitude that technology is neutral (critiqued by Robert Whelchel in the background reading) is a popular belief, manifest, for example, through the statement often attributed to the National Rifle Association that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." A good test of such claims, however, is to substitute another term. For example, the expression "sofas don't kill people, people kill people" is liable to draw some snickers, even though sofas can certainly be used as weapons and can be silent killers of couch-potatoes. There is a difference between a gun and a sofa, however, that makes this appeal to the neutrality of technology suspicious.

A more sophisticated treatment is the notion of technology as a form of political power and influence, as noted in Balabanian's fifth element and as suggested by McDermott's definition of technology listed above. McDermott, like Winner and other critics of technology, believes that "technology creates its own politics."

The truth of this statement can be seen in the career of Robert Moses, the master planner of the mid-twentieth century responsible for much of New York City's public works and infrastructure. Though originally a popular figure, as Moses' power grew, critics began to object as his projects continued to displace more and more people and seemed to take on a life of their own. As historian Leo Marx has noted, the original Enlightenment view of technological progress was that it was a means to social progress-that is, the realization of democratic values. To Moses, however, technological progress became an end in itself rather than a means to an end. To him, democracy was an impediment to technological progress. While tenements were cleared as part of Moses' plans to build modern high-rise buildings, viable, albeit poor, communities were destroyed in the process. Other projects, such as the Cross-Bronx Expressway, destroyed vibrant, middle-class communities.

Moses' career thus reveals flaws in the popular notion of the technical or technological fix, a concept first used by physicist Alvin Weinberg in the 1960s. As originally coined by Weinberg, a technological fix was using technology to attempt to solve nontechnical or social problems. Rather than attempting to change how people behave, the technological fix changes the physical environment so that behavior change becomes unnecessary. Over the years, the concept has expanded to include technological solutions for the problems (technical and social) that technology itself creates.

The concept of a technological fix fails in two ways. Rarely can real-world problems be divided into those that are purely technical and those that are purely social. The common lament by some engineers that nuclear waste disposal is a political rather than a technical problem fails to appreciate that the two are inextricably linked. Moreover, as Weinberg himself admitted, technological fixes only attack symptoms and rarely address the underlying problems that result in those symptoms. Consequently, technological fixes usually amount to no more than band-aid solutions. The high-rise projects constructed by Moses, though intended as technical fixes for poverty, lacked the community values of the neighborhoods they replaced. Thus, drug abuse and crime plagued many of them. Similarly, most of the technological fixes predicted by Weinberg in his 1966 essay, most notably nuclear power, have failed to work as he envisioned.

Technological Controversies

Technological controversies have become an important part of our political landscape. Many of these controversies and their ethical and policy implications-risk, sustainable development, technology and health care, telecommunications and privacy-will be discussed in further detail in later chapters. Here it is important to note that a significant aspect of all technological controversies is the way in which the political process deals with the controversy. Learning to control technology in a manner consistent with democratic principles is a significant and ongoing problem.

Some people believe that technology should be controlled technocratically; that is, those trained as technical experts should be making all of the important decisions in technological controversies (and, some believe, on broader social issues as well). The belief in technocracy is based on the premise that only those with technical training can have a true understanding of complex issues and an effective ability to solve problems.

Others believe that technology should be controlled democratically. Although some observers think that normal democratic processes are sufficient to resolve technological controversies, others believe that public participation should be given a strong role in resolving these issues. Arguments for increased public participation are based on both ethical and practical grounds. In a democracy, people ought to have the right to self-determination and informed consent regarding risks they may be exposed to. Ultimately, a technology will fail in the absence of the consent of those most affected by it.

We have far to go in resolving technological controversies-at present, the outcomes are rarely satisfactory to all of the involved parties. Nevertheless, it is clear that controversy over technology serves many important functions, especially in focusing on important issues and filtering out unimportant ones. The relationship between technology and society is a two-way street. The two are inseparable and have many mechanisms for feedback. The developers of technology often respond to society's needs and wants, but some technologies (for example, photocopiers and personal computers) seem to create their own demand. Technology and technologists, though a part of society, have a powerful influence in determining the possibilities for social change. Social change, on the other hand, can limit or nurture technological change. Setting reasonable and livable boundaries for technological change is one of our most significant societal challenges.

Background Reading

Noted political philosopher and technology critic Langdon Winner was featured in a 1998 interview in Technology and Society Magazine conducted by Managing Editor Terri Bookman. The far-ranging interview reprinted here offers a variety of insights into Winner's views on technology, engineering, and society.

Winner is heartened by the potential for grass-roots technological change, as evidenced by the antinuclear weapons and nuclear power movements of the 1970s, and more recently by attitudes toward tobacco and personal health. He even sees some cause for optimism concerning public response to institutionalized forms of power such as corporate control over mass media. Although he sees much growth in the scholarly understanding of the social context of technological development over the past two or three decades, he believes that too little of this thinking has made its way into the popular media, where most images of technology and its promise are still oversimplified.

Winner believes we should be more cautious about technological change (e.g., computers in education) and not take for granted that it will be automatically beneficial. He is also wary of the tradeoffs involved-in the education example, what other programs and teaching positions are being cut in order to pay for the computers and personnel to operate them? He believes we should seek positive alternatives for technological change, building on the intellectual criticism that has emerged over the past century. Winner argues that aberrations in this tradition, such as the Unabomber Manifesto, err in not seeing that hope for positive change. Movements such as community-supported agriculture are, he notes, seeking positive alternatives.

Winner asserts that other technological challenges require responses beyond the local level, in particular digital technology, flexible production, and genetic technology. Although he rejects technological determinism, he believes many powerful interests still appeal to it in order to persuade people that they have no choice other than adapt to inevitable technological change-change that focuses on individualism and economic growth, and may neglect community, equality, and environmental values.

Winner sees a key role for engineers in promoting socially responsible technological change, not just on the job, but also through dialogue within their professional societies and with the public in general. It is critical, Winner believes, for engineers to understand the ethical and sociopolitical contexts of their work, and to act on that understanding both through their career choices and their notions of engineering design. He challenges all engineers to ask, "What kind of world are we making here?"

Robert J. Whelchel, an electrical engineering professor currently serving for the second time as editor of Technology and Society Magazine, engages one of the myths of technology head-on in his provocative article "Is Technology Neutral?" first published in December 1986 and reprinted here. Stressing the reciprocal relationship between technology and society, Whelchel cautions that the growing importance of technology in society may result in a worldview dominated by technological values to the neglect of other viewpoints. Beginning with a discussion of neutrality, Whelchel concludes that since technology does affect the world, it cannot be causally neutral. Therefore, the key question is whether technology is morally neutral, or better yet, is technology value-free?

Whelchel responds to the latter question with a resounding "no," pointing to objectivity, quantification, and utilitarianism as primary technological values, and efficiency and a systems approach favoring function over device as secondary values. These values create a frame through which the technologist views the world. Whelchel argues, along the lines of the philosopher Heidegger, that there is a danger that the technological viewpoint, though correct in a number of important ways, will engender an attitude on the part of technologists and society alike that the technological frame captures all of reality.

Again noting the importance of society's impact on technology, Whelchel concludes by arguing for a broader framework for technology that provides for societal feedback. He believes this feedback is necessary for both society's well-being and the development of technology. He pleads for a reclamation of the "art" in technology and for its sense of wonder. To find these missing ingredients, however, we must look beyond the conventional technological frame to see technology as human experience.

Cases for Discussion

In a 1995 article Todd D. Cherkasky studies "Obscuring the Human Costs of Expert Systems," an example of the dual-edged relationship between technology and society. His focus is on the displacement and disaffection of technical professionals by such systems. He argues that advances in expert systems, artificial intelligence, and other knowledge-based systems create a conflict in national policy between research support for deployment of such systems and the purported solution for worker displacement by such systems of increased training and education.


Excerpted from Social, Ethical, and Policy Implications of Engineering Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents




Technology, Values, and Society.

The Social Context of Engineering.


Moral Dilemmas in Engineering.

Frameworks for Engineering Ethics.


Technology Policy and Ethical Issues.

Risk and Product Liability.

Engineering and Sustainable Development.

Engineering in a Global Context.

Technology and Health Care.

Information Technology.


Author Index.

Subject Index.

About the Editor.

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